How to Catch a Beating in Burma
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
There might be better ways to crack open coconuts but none more badass.
By Dave Leduc and Joe Henley
Since late 2016, lethwei has been my life. I love everything about it. The tradition. The ritual. The training. It’s the purest form of combat out there, and if muay thai is the art of eight limbs, lethwei is the art of nine. The ninth point of contact? The head.
But let me back up. If you weren’t clear before now, this is all about bare-knuckle fighting in which the fighters not only throw punches, kicks, elbows and knees, but also head-butts are perfectly legal. CTE be damned. I mean if I cared about CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), would I train head strikes by breaking coconuts open with my skull? I would not.
But that’s how you become lethwei’s first non-Burmese champion in the 2000-some-odd-year history of the sport.
After I see him, in a dusty back room at the stadium prior to the weigh-ins, I ram my fist repeatedly into my palm, repeating one phrase over and over again… It’s on …
Anyway, as a teenager my mind was always pretty scattered. In my late teens, I managed a club and ran a limo service in my hometown, Gatineau, Quebec. When I met Sifu Patrick Marcil, sanshou, along with some jeet kune do, started to take over my life. By 2011, at age 19, after getting kicked out of my parents’ house, I took off to Thailand, launching myself into the crucible of pro muay thai in the stadiums of Phuket. I racked up 12 wins in 13 fights in Thailand over a course of a couple of stints there, most by knockout (KO) or technical knockout (TKO), and even fought in a Bangkok maximum security prison before getting the call for a bout in Yangon.
This time, though, I’d be fighting lethwei. And I’d be fighting Too Too, a 27-year-old undefeated champion with nothing but wins and draws on his record. And a draw in lethwei, in which the only way to win or lose is by knockout, is a rare thing since in the sport’s purest form, there’s no point system. Even if a man gets knocked out, it doesn’t necessarily mean he’s done. There’s the injury timeout.
The trainer drags the temporarily comatose warrior back to his corner. Splashes some water on his face. Maybe gives him a slap or two to wake him back up. Two minutes later, the fighter gets sent back out there. Comeback victories might seem unlikely, but it does happen, and while the crowd cheers dominance, they roar for the man who rises from the stool to get back out there after hitting the floor.
But I’d draw with Too Too, then draw again with another champion, Tun Tun Min, in my second lethwei bout. In my third lethwei fight, a rematch with Tun Tun Min, I earned the man’s respect early with a side kick to the face, and I took the belt by TKO. Min, a bull of a fighter known for his aggressive style, buckled to a knee injury thanks to my merciless leg attacks. I wasn’t a foreign curiosity in a sport just beginning to open itself up to fighters from outside the country anymore: I was the world champ; a national celebrity.
Last December, I was back in Yangon to defend my belt again at Thein Pyu Stadium. The guy they threw into the ring with me was Corentin Jallon, a champion kickboxer from France. The heat, even in December, swelters in the mid-30s Celsius (mid-90s Fahrenheit) in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. And I had a lot on my mind. After the weigh-ins, I had to try and negotiate a land deal for a gym I’m planning to open in Myanmar. The landowner offered me a 50-year lease. I wanted to know if I could re-up for another half-century when that term is up, when I’m in my mid-70s.
But my opponent, Jallon, he was also being cornered by my former manager, an Iranian based out of Bangkok. A former fighter himself who turned shady on me in Japan when it turned out he was secretly managing not only me, but also the man I was scheduled to fight there. A year later, he can barely manage to look me, his old friend, in the eye.
After I see him, in a dusty back room at the stadium prior to the weigh-ins, I ram my fist repeatedly into my palm, repeating one phrase over and over again.
It’s the one true way to test your mental and physical toughness. There’s no hiding …
“It’s on, motherfucker.”
On fight day, from the opening introductions I know I’m the fan favorite. Yangon has become my town. The locals accept me as one of their own. At the airport, they even let me go through the line for Burmese nationals. Their acceptance means the world to me. I’ve embraced the culture. I wear the traditional longyi. I’ve learned the dance-like display of prefight bravado and respect in the ring. Fans have even given me a Burmese name — Dawa (Day-wa). It’s easier to pronounce in the local tongue than “Dave,” and in English, it can be interpreted in two ways: Protector, or Angel of Death.
When I emerge from a platform on an upper landing at Thein Pyu, making my way down to meet Jallon in the ring, it’s not the red and white colors of Canada on my back. It’s the red, green and gold of Myanmar. From the bell in round one, Jallon tried to rush me, putting the pressure on early. I shrugged him off, opening up cuts on his forehead with elbows, throwing head-butts in the clinch, showcasing the ninth limb like I trained to do. Twice the fight was stopped for a ringside official to check Jallon’s cuts.
Many times Jallon tried to wrap me up on the ropes. Each time I pasted him with inside strikes. Blood — Jallon’s blood — splattered the front row of spectators and photographers. Jallon was resilient. I have to give him that. The fight went the distance, ending in a draw. In the post-fight photo, you can see me smiling. My face was practically undamaged. Just a small cut on the side of my head. Jallon looked like he’d been in a car accident.
Later, in the locker room, I pulled the hand wraps from my badly swollen knuckles. In just a few days, I would be off to Canada for a seminar tour, and I’m doing what I planned to do since I first set foot in the lethwei arena — bringing Myanmar’s national sport to the world. For me, it’s the one true way to test your mental and physical toughness. There’s no hiding behind a judge’s decision. No controversy. Just the revealing of character, or the lack thereof.